Job profile: Become a program manager
Posted on
December 1, 2020
If you find project management exciting, but crave an even more strenuous degree of difficulty, then you may have what it takes to be a program manager.

To be above a project manager, to run projects across companies, or to handle more than one portfolio is the essence of what it means to be a program manager. You'll have a very high level of responsibility, and also be expected to be master juggler, with quite a lot of balls in the air. That will doubtless sound terrifying to some, while others may already be licking their chops.

So what precisely does a program manager do? A program manager is the individual in a large organization who identifies customers' needs and the strategizes the high-level business objectives required to meet those needs. A successful program manager works across organizations and portfolios, running large projects on multiple levels.

This is both similar to, and a healthy step up from, what a project manager does. A program manager must define what a product or feature will fulfill, articulate what success looks like for a product that has meet those specification, and plan and organize the resources needed to turn various organizational visions into reality.

What is a program manager?

In my many years of product management and project management, I have consistently found that it is enormously helpful to have a deep understanding of what it means to be a program manager even if you don't actually work in that role.

Some of the confusion about what a program manager is likely stems from the recency of the role — how new it is. A lot of people don't understand its scope. It simply is multiple projects or across companies, and that is what makes It different from a project manager.

Where practitioners of more established crafts, like design, engineering, and project management, have been able to segment themselves by their specialization, program managers are still defining what the role should be. They are often called project managers, because they do manage multiple projects.

If you find project management exciting, but crave an even more strenuous degree of difficulty, then you may have what it takes to be a program manager.

What it means to be a program manager greys around the edges at it morphs into the role that fits what organization the program manager is at. At times, I have heard the program manager referred to as "the lead on all projects." They have a complete view into any project, and oversight of all areas of work.

Job responsibilities

Like an advanced or high-level Project Manager, program managers set the goals, define success, help motivate teams, and are responsible for outcomes.

Specific responsibilities vary depending on the size of the organization. In larger organizations, for instance, program managers are embedded within teams of specialists. Researchers, analysts, and marketers help gather input, while developers and designers manage the day-to-day execution of tasks, draw-up designs, test prototypes, and find bugs. These program managers have more help, but they also spend more time aligning theses stakeholders behind a specific vision, even across multiple companies.

On the flip side, program managers at smaller organizations spend less time getting everyone to agree, but more time doing the hands-on work that comes with defining a vision and seeing it through. They may act as project managers, yet their oversight of multiple projects defines them as program managers. They execute tasks that overlap with project managers and work very closely with UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) designers and developers.

To put a finer point on it, though, a good program manager will spend his or her time on a handful of tasks: understanding and representing user needs, monitoring the market and developing competitive analyses, defining a vision for a product, aligning stakeholders around the vision for the product, prioritizing product features and capabilities, and ultimately creating a shared brain across larger teams to empower independent decision making.

On top of all this, there are sometimes subtle differences in project management and product management. Where projects can pursue any business end, a product is a launch of something external and marketable.

The future of program management

Areas of program management that are evolving naturally include anything connected to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Where the cutting edge of technology is, that is where skillsets have to improve, and where program manager skillsets have to keep up. Of course, responsibilities can shift a bit when team makeups and practices shift.

If you find project management exciting, but crave an even more strenuous degree of difficulty, then you may have what it takes to be a program manager.

For instance, if the team isn't doing Scrum (say, they're doing kanban or something else), then the program manager might end up doing the prioritization for the development team and play a larger role in making sure everyone is on the same page. On the other hand, if the team is doing Scrum, but doesn't have a program manager, then the product owner often ends up taking on some of the program manager's responsibilities.

Does the program manager know more about the product, or run more of the project(s)? All of this can get really murky really quickly, which is why teams have to be careful to clearly define responsibilities, or they can risk falling into the old ways of building software, where one group writes the requirements and throws it over the fence for another group to build.

When this happens expectations get misaligned, time gets wasted, and teams run the risk of creating products or features that don't satisfy customer needs. Roadmap definition is a key task, usually destined to be performed by the program manager. A PM takes the vision and lays it out with every project to define a roadmap for the company.

Education and training

For a really good program manager, I believe a business background is helpful. This is one area where I think technical expertise related to the product should be the responsibility of a different team, and should not fall on the program manager. They should run the external communication and product as a whole and that is more of business understanding.

Many program managers have a bachelor's-level degree in the industry that their product serves. Some also have MBA or additional business and marketing training.

The role of a program manager provides one of the best training grounds for moving onward and upward into roles like vice president, general manager, and COO. And if you're lucky and choose carefully, then you get to work with some pretty talented engineering and development teams to create products that delight your customers, make a huge difference in their lives, and help achieve profits and strategic objectives that propel your company to success.

If you find project management exciting, but crave an even more strenuous degree of difficulty, then you may have what it takes to be a program manager.

For certifications, you will want to become well acquainted with the credentials offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI), including the Project Management track. PMI's advanced tier of certifications includes a specially tailored Program Management Professional (PgMP) cert.

Embrace difficulty
As a program manager, you won't always have full responsibility over, or the authority to influence everything about, every project you encounter. Challenge abounds, however, for those willing (and prepared) to keep a lot of different balls in the air — sometimes across multiple companies. I wish you the very best of luck.

About the Author
Nathan Kimpel

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills includes finance, as well as ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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